Department of Justice updates policy on PSOB benefits

Editor's note: Earlier this year, FireRescue1 columnist Tom LaBelle recalled how the standard joke in the past was that you'd "drag a dying man to the exhaust pipe of the engine to ensure that they had enough smoke in their lungs to get the PSOB benefits." Do you think the new guidelines will have much of an effect? Have your say at the FireRescue1 Forums or the Member Comments section.

WASHINGTON — A revised set of guidelines has been issued to decide claims submitted by the survivors of firefighters who die in the line of duty.

The Department of Justice has issued two policy memorandums to the Public Safety Officers' Benefits Program, which it claims will significantly change the determination process for applications made under the Hometown Heroes Survivor Benefits Act.

The new policy, which is effective immediately, clarifies the language of the law and is intended to fix the problems that have been plaguing the determination process. As of Thursday, a total of 202 Hometown Heroes claims were pending, with 21 approved and 57 denied. A total of 26 appeals had been filed.

First, the memorandum states that classification for routine and non-routine activity will not be dependent on the department or public safety agency claiming it to be so. It now means that a firefighter responding to an incident will be considered non-routine due to the amount of stress the firefighter undergoes when performing the activity.

Previously, the Department had denied claims in which firefighters suffered a fatal heart attack during emergency response, with the justification that emergency response does not necessarily constitute, "nonroutine stressful or strenuous physical" activity.

Second, no medical history records will be requested of claimants in cases where nothing in the claim file suggests that either something other than the line of duty may have caused the fatal heart attack or stroke or that it was more likely than not that the heart attack was imminent. Unless information in the claim file suggests that the deceased person knew or should have known of the presence of heart disease and aggravated the condition by his or her own behavior, then a coroners report suggesting a previous condition will not be considered.

The NVFC, which was among the groups lobbying for changes, welcomed the new guidelines.

"I strongly encourage anyone whose Hometown Heroes claim has been denied to appeal the decision directly to the Director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance as soon as possible."

The Public Safety Officers' Benefit Program is a one-time payment of nearly $303,064 to the families of fallen public safety officers. The Hometown Heroes Act, which was signed into law in December 2003, was intended to make it possible for public safety officers who die from heart attack or stroke caused by participation in emergency response to qualify for the program.

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